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Easter 4 (B)

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A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer

First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches

Fourth Sunday of Easter – May 7, 2006

Text: John 10:11-18

(As transcribed from a recording made at St. Rose Care Center, Lamoure, ND.)

Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’ve always been a big fan of Jesus’ storytelling. He was such a good storyteller that even when he wasn’t telling a story at all, it felt like he was, and you paid attention, and you listened closely – like we do when we hear this story about how Jesus is a good shepherd. He’s got a real gift. He doesn’t talk about things that are out there and far away, things that are strange, things that are too wonderful for us. Instead, he talks about the everyday, ordinary, common things that are familiar. He talks about things like neighbors and sheep and agriculture. He talks about the things that we know. And because he does that, it draws us in, and we begin to listen to him and hear his story, and then – when he makes his point, we hardly even know he’s done it…but it gets to us.

Now normally, I’m all with Jesus – I think he’s doing great stuff in his stories. But, I have to tell you, today, when I read what he has to say, I’m not so sure. The part that makes me wonder is when he says, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep? Since when? Says who? I’m not sure that that’s what a good shepherd would do at all!

See, I’ve got a brother – his name is Jeff – and he’s in college right now. During the summer he worked at the SuperAmerica gas station in Hutchinson, where we grew up. The gas station is out there on the west end of town, right on the highway, and so lots of interesting people stop in there on their way heading east or west. Now Jeff, because he was the new employee, got to work the graveyard shift – overnight – at the store, all by himself. And I wondered what he would do if some of the people who came in one evening happened to have a gun and a desire for a lot of money from the cash register. So I asked what he would do – would he defend the store? Would he try and push a button to call for help? Or would he try and fend off the robbers himself? And he looked at me, and you know what he said? “Are you crazy?”

That’s what he said! Of course he wouldn’t do any of that. He said he would let them take whatever they wanted and leave the store. And, he told me, that is what employees at the store are told to do – it’s in their training right from the very first day, that they don’t risk their lives for the money. A good employee does not lay down his life for the sake of the money in the cash register.

Let me give a different example that might be a little closer to home, though. We all either grew up on farms or knew people who lived on farms, and so agriculture is close to our hearts. I want you to imagine a farmer who raises chickens, and one night – in the middle of the night – he wakes up, and outside his window he sees a bright, flickering glow, and he realizes the chicken coop is on fire. And so the farmer pulls on his robe and puts on some slippers and runs out to the chicken coop, and he rescues those chickens, taking them out armfuls at a time until every last chicken is out of that burning chicken coop. Unfortunately for the farmer, he breathed in so much smoke while he was rescuing his chickens that he fell over and died just minutes later.

The farmer laid down his life for the sake of his chickens. Now, if you read that story in the newspaper, would you think of that farmer as a hero? Would you call him a “good” farmer for sacrificing his life for a flock of chickens? Probably not. If we read about that, we would think that he was, perhaps, brave. Perhaps he was dedicated. But, probably, in our hearts we’d secretly think that that farmer was just a little bit foolish. His life was worth so much more than those chickens, and he gave it up for them.

Or imagine a farmer who raises hogs, and one afternoon, looking out across the sky he sees the cark clouds swirling and rumbling, and he realizes that a tornado is approaching his farm. And so he runs out to the hog pen, and he leads each of those animals into his own storm cellar, pushing and shoving until they all get in there. And then, just as the last one goes down the steps, the tornado arrives there in the farmyard, and scoops him up and carries him miles and miles away before he falls to the ground and dies – a victim of the tornado. All of his hogs lived. He laid down his life for the sake of the hogs. Would we say that he was a “good” farmer? Would we say he was a smart farmer? Probably not.

And so when Jesus says a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep, it makes me wonder, “Who says so?” It sure wouldn’t be the farmer’s family – the shepherd’s family. It wouldn’t be anybody who counts on that shepherd being there every single day.

In fact, the only group that I can think that might be able to call a shepherd like that good… is the sheep.

The sheep would say that that shepherd was very good to give up his life for them.

And so we get an idea what Jesus means – he’s not talking to anybody except people who are sheep.

But there’s a problem, even more than that – because, you see, once a shepherd gives up his life that’s it. He’s gone! He’s dead. And his sheep are left alone. And so even from a sheep’s point of view, this isn’t a good situation, right? Because without a shepherd the sheep are lost. They don’t know where to go to find food or water. If one of them wanders off, there’s no one who will come and rescue them. And if another predator comes along and tries to break up the flock and carry some of them away, there’s no one to protect them anymore. Once the shepherd has given up his life, that’s all he can do, and the flock is alone.

See, what a flock of sheep really needs in a shepherd is not just one who is faithful and willing to give up his life for them – they need a shepherd who can also take his life back up again. Otherwise, they’ll be alone and in trouble in the world. But if they have a shepherd who’s able to do that – somehow take his life back up again – then they know that their flock will not only be protected once, but will be safe and will be faithfully led all the time.

Now if only such a thing existed! If only there were such a person as a shepherd who could lay down his life but then take it back up again!

Well, of course, friends, you know Jesus is that kind of shepherd. Jesus is the only kind of shepherd that we could possibly call good. Not just because he lays down his life for us – not just because he gives himself up in order to save us – but because he lives again in order to save us. That is why he is good.

We need him, yes, to go to the mat for us – to even go to the cross for us – but even more than that, we need him to live for us, because without Jesus we are lost, and vulnerable, and alone just like a flock of sheep.

Because he’s taken up his life again, we really can call him our Good Shepherd. And we can say, with the psalmist, that “surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives, and we will dwell in God’s house forever,” because of our Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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